It begins like this:

‘Too old for this shit,’ muttered Craw, wincing at the pain in his dodgy knee with every other step. (p. 9)

As a way of introducing a fantasy adventure novel, this sentence is very efficient: it establishes the narrative tone; it suggests that the characters we’ll follow will not necessarily be in peak physical condition (as is the stereotype); and it highlights that we are going to feel every twinge and scar.

The Heroes chronicles a three-day battle between the forces of the Union and the Northmen (it follows on from Joe Abercrombie’s earlier novels, but I never felt disadvantaged for not having read them); the title refers to a stone circle of strategic importance, but the nature of heroism is also a central concern of the book. It soon becomes clear that there aren’t many obviously ‘heroic’ characters in the cast: Abercrombie’s principal viewpoint characters are Calder, son of a former King of the Northmen, who fights on that side but is a coward only out for his own gain; Bremer dan Gorst, the bloodthirsty royal observer of the war for the Union, who tried out mercy but found it lacking; and Curnden Craw, that old warrior fighting for the Northmen, who believes in standing by his crew and doing the right thing – not that that’s always easy to determine. About the only character who comes close to the typical fantasy ‘hero’ is Whirrun of Bligh, who wields a legendary sword, knows from his goddess the moment and manner of his death, is widely considered mad – and is pretty comprehensively shown over the course of the novel to be misguided. So much for the hero.

The milieu Abercrombie depicts is largely masculine, but there are a few female characters. Of the three main ones, Wonderful, Craw’s second-in-command, and Ishri, the Northmen’s sorceress, never really rise above stereotypes (respectively, the female who’s as much one of the lads as the lads are, and the mysterious exotic); but Finree dan Brock (daughter of the Union forces’ commander-in-chief) is more rounded.  She begins as a stereotype herself – the scheming wife of a powerful man (a colonel) – but then Finree comes up against the reality of war, and is changed in a complex way; she doesn’t lose her essential character, but rather the balance of her personality shifts in response to her experiences. Finree becomes more real because she cannot remain a stereotype after all that happens.

The bloody nature of war is emphasised throughout The Heroes, as is the relationship between war and heroism. Whirrun of Bligh might be enthusiastic for the benefits of war (‘This is the thing about war. Forces men to do new things with what they have. Forces them to think new ways. No war, no progress,’ p. 204); but most of the rest of the novel is not, and the possibility of true heroism also seems elusive. ‘A war is no place for heroics,’ (p. 34) comments one character; or consider the following passage, concerning the aftermath of an attack:

Gorst watched the whirling clouds of gnats that haunted the bank, and the corpses floated past beneath them. The bravery. Turning with the current. The honour. Face up and face down. The dedication of the soldiers. One sodden Union hero wallowed to a halt in some rushes, bobbing for a moment on his side. A Northman drifted up, bumped gently into him and carried him from the bank… (p. 222)

There’s some effective juxtaposition of ideal and reality, with an added reminder that those who fall in battle end up the same way, regardless of whose side they are on.  Abercrombie’s conflict is one where a man may lose his life to a single arrow that he doesn’t see coming, or even by stepping off the path through a bog. ‘Death is a bored clerk, with too many orders to fill [thinks Gorst]. There is no reckoning. No profound moment. It creeps up on us from behind, and snatches us away while we shit.’ (p. 415)

The novel’s view of death and battle is also reflected in its narrative techniques. There’s a very effective chapter in which the viewpoint character of one scene is killed by the viewpoint character of the next. Abercrombie’s battle scenes are vivid, but also bring home the confusion and limited perspective of those involved. There’s also a nice seam of black humour running through the book. But the price of the jokes and the vigorous fight scenes is the suffering which follows, and The Heroes counts the cost of that suffering.

It crossed my mind whilst reading The Heroes just what a broad church fantasy is. We often define ‘fantasy’ by content (quests and magic and battles in an invented world, say), but we can also talk about it terms of affect – that is, stories which create a heightened sense of fantasy, of strangeness. The Heroes is interesting from that latter perspective because it works by stripping away any sense of fantasy – even the few interventions by the novel’s wizard characters are not so much ‘magic’ but artillery. The Heroes is a fantasy of cold, hard reality.

Joe Abercrombie’s website
Video: Abercrombie reads an extract and is interviewed by his publisher
Some other reviews of The Heroes: Niall Alexander for Strange Horizons; Martin Lewis at Everything Is Nice.